The PJ Tatler

Senator McConnell: The Shrewd Adult in the Room

At first glance Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appears to be an unassuming,  bland, and soft spoken southern good old boy. McConnell is  a dream stereotype for Lorne Michaels at Saturday Night Live. You can imagine SNL depicting McConnell as the poster child for any thick headed,  slow talking southern conservative.  Admittedly the Kentucky senator is a slow and can look a bit goofy

But don’t be fooled. Mitch McConnell is one of the shrewdest political tacticians in the United States Senate. And he is exactly where the wants to be.  After outmaneuvering Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) last night by calling for a cloture vote in which Reid lost, today he pivoted to announce that he had secretly opened up direct talks with President Obama, leaving Reid out in the cold.  Earlier today he announced that he is “very close” to a deal with President Obama.

As he did last December when he crafted a deal to preserve the Bush tax cuts, McConnell is in his prime at the negotiating table. Even WaPo’s Paul Kane concurred writing today that “McConnell’s fingerprints are on every big bipartisan deal and every key spending bill to emerge from the Congress in recent years.

All eyes including this writer expected the Republican to begin direct talks with Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV). Instead, he shrewdly reached out to the White House and said let’s make a deal.  This was a brilliant move. It means whatever agreement is sealed, President Obama will be co-owner.

McConnell holds the important cards at the table.  As he demonstrated last night on the Senate floor, he has a united caucus of at least 41 Senators behind him. This will deny the Senate Democrats the 60 votes needed for any deficit vote.  So today McConnell is the kingmaker.  While we don’t know the final outlines, we can be assured it will be a creative resolution that can hand the best deal to his fellow Republicans.

This worries the Democratic party base.  They have harshly criticized White House Chief of Staff William Daley as a weak negotiator and complained that he already has made too many concessions to the Republicans, including the pledge of no new taxers.  Of all the scenarios to unfold, a McConnell-Daley-Obama  deal strikes fear in the hearts of many progressive activists.

As McConnell has said today, whatever the outlines of the deal there will be no new taxes.  “We’re not going to raise taxes in this deal,” said on the Sunday morning talk shows. “I just said that, and I will say it again. There are no tax increases in this bill.”

Among the betting is that the outlines of a broad $3 Trillion plan might emerge that will cut short term spending and set up a structure for further debt reduction including entitlements. Significant liberal sacred cows will be sacrificed and conservatives could see the first down payment on real deficit reduction.  In return, there will not be another debt limit vote until the next presidential election.

If this political deal holds Obama will be seen as moving to the center while his hard core political base is left out in the cold.  He could get a nice short term bounce up in the polls except for The Nation crowd.  This would be be good news  to deliver to Monday morning’s Wall Street opening, although it is possible that it could still result in a credit rating downgrade by October.

McConnell is a no patsy.  The 69 year old Senator served as a judge and Deputy Attorney General under President Gerald Ford. His stint at Justice was at a delicate  political time for the country when the nation was dealing with many post-Watergate legal issues.  He floor managed President Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan policies after September 11.  He was the key player in shaping the financial bailout bill when the Congress failed to pass it and the stock market fell 700 points.  And he delivered the final post-election deal with President Obama last December.

A cool and shrewd negotiator, Mitch McConnell may emerge as the true adult in the room.